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Lighting Out for the Territories

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October 796 U.C., Phezzan Dominion

Reinhard was in a foul mood as he waited in the port at the bottom of the space elevator, about to make his ignominious departure from Phezzan. The elevator car he was supposed to ride on was scheduled to arrive in half an hour, and he had nothing better to do than watch the vendors hawk their wares. He wouldn’t miss this when he returned to Heinessen, but he did like Phezzan’s weather, and he didn’t mind some of the culture, either. Despite himself, he had grown used to the place. Strange, to think that he had lived decent parts of his life on all three of the major capital planets in the galaxy. Had he liked any of them? He couldn’t actually say. They were just places.

There was an argument going on in front of him between a vendor of pornographic magazines and a woman whose child had just knocked over the front display stand. Both parties felt equally aggrieved, and it was entertaining to watch them yell at each other as foot traffic flowed around them. Reinhard watched as both mother and vendor attempted to tug the same dirty book out of the five-year-old’s hands. He was distracted enough by the scene that he didn’t notice someone coming up to him until it was too late, and Muller sat down on the bench beside him.

Reinhard was tempted to start something with him that would eclipse the argument across the way, but he didn’t.

“I hear you’re getting sent home,” Muller said, speaking in the Phezzani argot. He was dressed in a long raincoat-- it was monsoon season-- but Reinhard could see the edges of his Imperial uniform peeking out underneath the sleeves.

“I thought we had agreed that you wouldn’t send a ship after Castrop,” Reinhard hissed.

“There was no ship that followed him,” Muller replied, affronted. “I keep my promises. And, besides, you didn’t see us send a ship. You would have.”

“What do you want, Muller?”

“Came to say goodbye, since I probably won’t see you again.”

“How sentimental of you.”

“I’m offended that you didn’t come see me.”

“We’re not friends.”

“I know. We’re about to be enemies again, as soon as you leave Phezzan.” He shrugged. “It’s a shame that the rest of the galaxy is at war.”

“We should stop pretending that the war doesn’t exist here,” Reinhard said.

“No,” Muller said. “I don’t think I will.” He reached to his side, and pulled out a wrapped package. “Got you a going away gift.”

Reinhard hesitated, then took it. “What is it?”

“Open it.”

“I’ll call Phezzan Port Security and say you’re handing me a bomb.”

Muller laughed. “Come on.”

Reinhard peeled the shiny green wrapping paper back, revealing a book. He flipped it over to look at the front cover. It showed a candid photograph of some of the early members of the Goldenbaum dynasty, but someone had taken a thick black marker to the photo, and crossed out the eyes of some of the figures. “ Every Point Forms the Line: A New History of the Goldenbaum Dynasty, 30-75 I.C. ” Reinhard crumpled the wrapping paper in his hands. “Not sure why you think I care about the Goldenbaums at all.”

“I would have gotten you something about economics if I was actually getting you a book you care about,” Muller said. “But you care about the book’s author.”

Reinhard took a closer look at the book in his hands. “Captain Leigh wrote this?”

“Ages ago,” Muller said. “I think he was working on it while I was his student. It’s only just now getting published.”

“Why?”

“I didn’t ask him,” Muller said. “Anyway, he sent me a review copy. Figured you could have it since I’m done with it.”

“Is it any good?”

“Sure. It’s interesting, anyway.”

“Thanks,” Reinhard said after a second.

Muller glanced at his watch. “Look, Müsel, I’ve gotta run. But if you get dishonorably discharged or whatever, you should come back to Phezzan. You could make a living with your writing here.”

“I’m not going to get discharged,” Reinhard said. “And I don’t think you have the license to extend Phezzan’s hospitality to me.”

“What do you mean?” Muller asked with a funny smile. “Phezzan welcomes everyone.”

“Sure it does.”

“Don’t get killed or anything,” Muller said.

“You have a low opinion of my future.”

Muller shrugged. “Alright, here’s a higher opinion: when you get really famous, don’t forget about me here in the embassy.”

“Muller, when the Alliance invades this place, I’ll make sure you get a cushy POW camp spot.”

Muller laughed. “You kill me, Müsel.” He stood, then extended his hand. Reinhard stood as well, then they shook hands. Muller’s grip was firm, and he put his other hand on Reinhard’s shoulder. “What am I going to do without you around to make life interesting?”

“Bug my successor’s apartment, I’m sure.”

“Oh, right. I’ll add that to my to-do list.” 

“You shouldn’t stand around here talking to me, or somebody’s going to send you back to Odin.”

“Yeah,” Muller said. He startled Reinhard by pulling him in for a brief hug. “I mean it, stay safe on Heinessen, or wherever they send you.”

“Don’t be sentimental, Muller. It doesn’t pay,” Reinhard said, extracting himself from Muller’s grip. Muller seemed disappointed for a second, but Reinhard offered him a small smile. “Thanks for the parting gift.”

“No problem,” Muller said. Even though he had said he had to leave, he seemed reluctant to go. Reinhard nodded at him. “Alright, well, goodbye, then.”

“See you around,” Reinhard said, though they almost certainly wouldn’t.

Muller gave a wave that seemed like it was half approaching a salute, then headed off, glancing back over his shoulder at Reinhard a couple times before he vanished off into the crowd of the port.

Reinhard sat back down, then flipped open the book that Muller had given him. There was Leigh’s name, in crisp blackletter, on the title page. The dedication was funny.

For all those whose history will never be written.

As was his habit, Reinhard flipped to the index and bibliography at the back of the book, skimming over them in order to get the jist of what he should expect to be covered. If this had been some sort of economic treatise, he would have recognized more of the sources, but he felt out of his element as he looked down the long list of titles and names. At the end, he ended up on the acknowledgements page, and he looked at it out of curiosity.

This work would not exist without a great deal of support from everyone in my life. In particular, I would like to thank the following people:

Kaiser Friedrich IV, whose patronage and support made researching and publishing this work possible.

Duke Otto von Braunschweig and Princess Amarie von Goldenbaum, for taking a chance on me.

Commodore Dietrich Bronner, for allowing me unprecedented access to the Imperial archives.

Count Franz von Mariendorf, for your constant generosity.

Rear Admiral Oskar von Reuenthal, for everything.

Rear Admiral Wolfgang Mittermeyer, for encouraging me to close the gap.

Baroness Magdalena von Westpfale, for everything else.

And Evangeline Mittermeyer, for finding this book a home that wasn’t my desk drawer.

I would also like to thank all of the faculty and staff at the Imperial Officers’ Academy, the rest of the 479 Misfits, the Imperial Archive librarians, Fleet Admiral Gregor von Muckenburger, Admiral Willibald von Merkatz, Vice Admiral Theodore Staden, Captain Paul von Oberstein, Lieutenant Siegfried Kircheis, Hildegarde von Mariendorf, and my father.

It was an odd list, for sure, and Reinhard felt very strange about it. Kaiser Friedrich was given top billing in the acknowledgements, which was… something. Reinhard would have to read the book to see how fawning about the Goldenbaums Leigh had decided to be. He wondered just what the Kaiser was having him say. The disgust at seeing the Kaiser’s name first was completely cancelled out by seeing Kircheis’ name third from last in the list. He wondered exactly what Kircheis had done to merit a spot, right next to the young Mariendorf. 

The about the author page at the end of the book showed a smiling photograph of Leigh, wearing a captain’s uniform, and, although Reinhard had known that Leigh did not look like the standard Imperial citizen, it was still a little strange to see his black hair falling into his dark eyes in the photo, seeing him for the first time. Annerose had met him, Reinhard remembered. He would have to ask her what she thought.

He found that he was grateful to Muller for the gift, as he boarded the ship that would take him back to Heinessen. It was a long and dull journey, and having something to read was a pleasant diversion. He went into the book expecting to argue with the author. He sometimes posted reviews of economics texts on his website, and though this book had nothing to do with his primary subject, he thought it would amuse Muller, who would surely keep reading his blog, to see his thoughts. But his red pen for scribbling notes in the margins of the book sat mostly unused except to highlight, as Reinhard found himself well and truly absorbed in the weird story that Leigh pulled together about the early years of the Goldenbaum dynasty. 

It was, truly, a “new” history, one that, as promised by the title, connected dots that were meant to have remained buried by time. Leigh had gone through the weeds in whatever Imperial archives he had access to, and had managed to construct a riveting narrative. Reinhard was fascinated by this challenging way of looking at these early years of the Empire, which in official histories had been a relatively smooth, if strict, transition period. There had always been much discussion of new laws passed, and shaking out the remaining republican and degenerate elements in society, but Leigh didn’t focus on that, instead trying to pry apart what strings of power at the very top of society were being pulled, and why, and by who. He followed the money in an abstract sense, in a way that Reinhard appreciated. “ Cui bono?” one chapter title asked. Cui bono, indeed.

Reinhard found the book darkly funny, in certain places. Leigh went through how much of the dynastic infighting had been over claims to the throne, and how some of it had been blamed on republican elements, rather than on its true culprits. It reminded him of how Ingrid had killed Prince Ludwig, and how the Earth Church had covered it up for their own gains, but how republicans had taken the blame. He wondered if Leigh was a good enough investigator, if he would be able to pry that narrative apart. Probably it was too soon for that, though. Leigh must have only been able to research and publish this work because the history was so ancient, hundreds of years old. Those ancient Goldenbaums didn’t need much protecting.

Still, some of the legitimacy of the dynasty hinged on the idea that the line was unbroken, and that the ruler was there because they carried Rudolph’s standard. For Leigh to have Kaiser Friedrich’s blessing to openly discuss infighting and squabbling and hordes of illegitimate children and everything else the book alleged, it was interesting-- about as interesting as the fact that Leigh, a clear foreigner, had the Kaiser’s favor in the first place.

All in all, Reinhard wasn’t sure what to make of the book. The picture he had of Leigh in his mind was only growing stranger by the day. He wondered if they would ever get a chance to meet.

 


 

November 796 U.C., Heinessen

Despite the relative ignominity of his return to Heinessen, when Reinhard stepped into the bustling floor of the spaceport and found Annerose waiting for him, he couldn’t help but break out into a broad smile, the kind that was reserved for her and her alone. She didn’t look much different than when he had last seen her, but when she ran towards him and embraced him, her grip was crushing.

“I’m so glad you’re back,” she said, running her hand down the back of his head, then pushing him away so that she could look at him more fully, as the spaceport crowd streamed around them. “You’ve gotten so tanned on Phezzan; I hardly recognize you.”

Reinhard laughed. “I’m sure I’ll lose it fast, now that I’m back in Heinessenpolis. Or when they kick me out into space.”

She shook her head. “We can talk about that in a minute-- let’s get out of here. I feel like I have so many things to tell you.”

“I figured you would,” Reinhard said. “If there’s one thing about being back here, it’s not having to wait until my regularly scheduled leave to find out what all your secrets are.”

“I don’t know if they’re secrets.” She held his elbow as they made their way out of the spaceport. It was a cool spring afternoon and grey clouds filled the sky, so that everything appeared flat and lifeless. Wind pushed them forward through the parking lot, making it difficult to speak until they made it into Annerose’s car. 

Reinhard waited until they had made it out of the complicated parking lot before he asked, “So, what is it that you needed to tell me, but couldn’t even put down in code?”

Annerose half laughed, though suddenly the sound was strained. “You know, I’ve been thinking over all the different ways to tell you about what happened on Cahokia, and now I’ve forgotten what I resolved to say.”

“Did something happen to you that I need to be concerned about?” Reinhard asked. “Something with your CO?” His eyes were narrowed.

“No, Reinhard-- Walter’s great.” There was an odd tone in her voice, but she didn’t seem like she was lying. “No, this has nothing to do with him.”

“What is it, then? It couldn’t be that bad, if it isn’t Schenkopp and you’re unhurt.”

Her knuckles were white on the steering wheel. “While I was on Cahokia-- I ran into someone--”

“Oh, Leigh, yes, I know,” Reinhard said. “Muller told me. I’ve been looking forward to hearing about that.” He reached behind him and fished in his bag for the book that Muller had given him, now slightly battered. “Did you know that Leigh wrote a book? It’s pretty good.”

Annerose glanced at him sideways. “No, I didn’t,” she said. “You already knew about this?”

“Well, only what Muller told me. He said Leigh says hello.”

“What exactly did he tell you?”

“Only that Leigh was on Cahokia, and that you encountered each other. What actually happened?”

“Did he mention anyone else?”

“No,” Reinhard said. “Should he have?” His tone edged into concern.

“I guess that depends on how much Leigh told him…” Annerose said hesitantly.

“Who else should he have mentioned?”

There was a long silence, which grew tenser as Annerose merged onto the highway, moving all the way into the left lane and rushing past the rest of the traffic.

“Who should he have mentioned, Annerose?”

“Sieg was there,” she said, finally. “With Leigh.”

Reinhard’s hands balled into fists, and he said the first coherent thought that popped into his head. There were plenty of incoherent ones that preceded it, flashing by on a tidal wave of longing and other feelings, but his annoyance at Muller was easy to parse. “Muller-- that bastard-- I swear I’ll kill him.”

There was a weird relief in Annerose’s voice. “He should have told you, then?”

“I asked him once if he knew where Kircheis was posted, and he lied to my face!”

“I’m sure he has his reasons,” Annerose said. “Well, now you know. He’s assigned under Leigh, or at least they were together, on Cahokia.”

“He’s alive, right? You wouldn’t be telling me this if he was dead.” He had thought that the dedication to Kircheis in Liegh’s book was a guarantee that he was fine, but he had to check.

“Yes,” she said. “If Leigh is alive, then Sieg is, too.”

Reinhard nodded and tried to calm his racing mind. Still, he couldn’t keep from dashing out questions as fast as he could form the words. “What was he like? When did you see him?”

Annerose went through the situation on Cahokia, how the plan had been to destroy and capture the Imperial ships on the planet. Reinhard nodded along, analytical mind working over the story. Though he was impatient to hear about Kircheis, some other part of him was proud of his sister. “And when I came to the bridge, Leigh was there. He surrendered, and I took him prisoner.”

Reinhard didn’t know if he should laugh or yell. “Just Leigh?”

“I’m getting there,” Annerose said. She had to pause telling the story so that she could get off the highway. “I went to interrogate him.”

“What were you trying to find out?”

“I didn’t realize it was the same Leigh that you had told me about, at first, so I wanted to make sure of that, and I was going to try to find out more of the details of his mission on Cahokia, but he ended up talking to me about Ingrid and this other woman, Baroness Westpfale, who was a… friend… of Ingrid’s.”

“I heard about her from Muller,” Reinhard said. “Is she important?”

“She and Ingrid were close,” Annerose said. “But other than that, I don’t really know.”

“Well, what happened next?”

“I was in the middle of speaking to Leigh, alone, when Sieg--” She broke off, making a strange sound. “I didn’t realize it was him, and he didn’t realize it was me-- we both had our helmets on. He killed one of my men who was guarding the door.”

“How?”

“With an axe,” Annerose said. “He was trying to rescue Leigh. We fought.”

“What did he fight like?” If he hadn’t known that both people involved were completely fine, Annerose right in front of him unharmed, Reinhard would have been unable to listen to this story with any degree of patience.

“He would have won,” Annerose said. “He’s good.”

“Of course he is-- but you are, too.”

“I don’t know if he would have won against Walter, but he has a height advantage on me.”

“But he didn’t kill you, obviously, so what did you do?”

“He shattered my helmet,” Annerose said. “And when he saw my face…” She hesitated. “He stopped attacking me. I took him prisoner, too.”

Reinhard was biting his fingers in agitation. “I wish I could have been there.”

“What would you have done?”

“I would have tried--”

“To convince him to come back with you?”

Reinhard couldn’t quite admit to it, but that had been part of what he was thinking. “I don’t know.”

“If it hadn’t been so chaotic, he might have stayed a prisoner. I lost him in the rush.” Her tone was very carefully neutral, but she went on to describe the crashing of the ship and the battle outside. “I lost track of them both then, but they must have made it back into orbit.”

Reinhard shook his head. Everything was too much to process. All the glimpses of Kircheis he had been having across space were so fleeting and insubstantial, but they were also something real to hold on to. Now that he had lost contact with Muller, there would be no more passing strange messages back and forth with Leigh, and that loss was felt so much more keenly, now that Annerose had seen Kircheis in the flesh, been close enough to touch him.

“Are you alright, Reinhard?” Annerose asked.

“I have to be, don’t I?” He looked out the window at the city streets. “I doubt either of us will see him again by chance like that.”

“The universe must be a smaller place than it seems.” Annerose was wistful, now.

“Did he say anything to you?”

“We didn’t have a chance to actually talk.” She shook her head. “He’s loyal to that Leigh. Seems like a lot of people are.”

Reinhard shook his head. “I can’t say I understand.”

“You don’t trust Sieg’s judgement?” Annerose asked, and for once when mentioning Kircheis, there was a teasing smile in her voice. Reinhard glanced over at her, and his hand went to the locket under his shirt.

“I haven’t seen him in a decade,” he said. “I’m afraid-- I don’t know.”

“He mistook me for you, you know,” Annerose said. “That was what made him drop his axe.”

All his thoughts slid across the surface of his mind like pebbles across an iced-over lake. He wished he could have traded places with Annerose. He was silent for a minute, just thinking. When he spoke, it was to change the subject, though his voice was nearly choked. “Aside from Cahokia, how have you been? And Ms. Roscher and Julian?”

 


 

It was a happy reunion to see Ingrid and Julian again. Reinhard was surprised to find that he would not need to sleep on a day bed in the living room or on the couch, as his room had been left vacant. It took only a cursory investigation to determine where Ingrid had been sleeping, and Reinhard decided not to ask any more about it. If he had been younger, he would have been jealous for not having the sum total of his sister’s affections, but between all the people crammed into her tiny house, Reinhard admitted he had lost that battle long ago, and tried to put it out of his mind. He did like Julian and Ingrid, after all. Especially when he heard the story of how Julian had attacked Schenkopp for “breaking in.” Reinhard laughed so hard that he couldn’t breathe.

“You’ll have to start taking axe lessons,” Reinhard said to Julian once he had recovered his breath. “That way, next time Captain Schenkopp breaks in, you can really get him.”

“Have you been keeping up your practice on Phezzan?” Annerose asked mildly.

“Hmph,” Reinhard said. “I would like to retain the element of surprise and not answer that question.”

Although the joy of being back with his family didn’t wear off, it was overshadowed by the lingering threat of the inquest that Reinhard had been summoned back to Heinessen for. He had been given a date to appear for a hearing in the capitol building in less than a week. 

Cazerne stopped by Annerose’s house one night to discuss it over cups of coffee. Ingrid had taken Julian out to the movies.

“I find it hard to believe that all of this trouble is being gone to over some two-bit defector,” Reinhard said dismissively, dumping sugar into his coffee until it was almost too sweet for his taste. It was just a nervous habit. 

Cazerne sat primly at the head of the table, looking across from him with a small frown. “Claiming to have information about critical weaknesses in the defense of Heinessen is important. It looks very bad that you ordered his ship searched and he was killed immediately after.”

“Not quickly enough, since he had time to complain about me.”

“Reinhard,” Annerose said, frowning, “that is the kind of talk that you will need to avoid during your hearing.”

“It’s not a hearing,” Reinhard said. “It’s an inquest.”

“Call it whatever you like,” Cazerne said. “But I’m afraid your entire career is on the line.”

“Absolutely everything I did was completely above the board and approved by my superiors.” This wasn’t entirely true, but it was close enough. His motivations had been more complicated than the ones he had told Blackwell, but everything he had actually done had been under Blackwell’s supervision.

“I know. And the letter from Blackwell should help your case significantly.” He sighed. “Under normal circumstances, I would say it’s a good thing that you stopped human trafficking at the Phezzani port, rather than them making it all the way to Heinessen, but unfortunately the circumstances don’t warrant that.”

“Have you heard who I’m being questioned by?” Reinhard paused. “Since this is a military matter, is there a reason it’s not taking place in HQ?”

“It’s not a military matter,” Cazerne said. “It’s a political one.”

“An inquest, not a court martial... I was told that was because someone was looking out for me.”

“Maybe someone is,” Cazerne said. “It’s being run by the Committee for Public Defense,” Cazerne said. “They don’t usually hold hearings like this. It’s strange-- I don’t have a good idea of what angle is being taken. I am a little worried that the best case scenario is that you’re being used a scapegoat to prevent something else from coming of it.”

The Committee for Public Defense was a strange group-- it was comprised of a mix of fleet officials appointed by the defense secretary and several members of the Alliance Legislative Council, as well as one representative from the office of the defense secretary. It was generally understood that they served as a lobbying arm for the fleet to influence budget proposals. While he had heard of them performing hearings before, it was usually on financial appropriations, and not a question of misconduct or treason. “How am I even supposed to present my case if I don’t know what angle they’re going to come at me from?”

“You’re not on trial,” Annerose said.

“Sure I’m not.”

“What I mean is that you might not even have a chance to argue in your own defense.”

Reinhard scowled and drank his coffee. “I hope that I can.”

“I’m sure it will be more of answering direct questions, rather than them letting you explain yourself. That might be better,” Cazerne said. “I don’t think you’re likely to ramble, but I’ve been told that the less talking that you do at these things, the better.”

“‘These things,’” Reinhard said. “Have you ever heard of something like this before?”

“I’ve heard of court martials for political reasons,” Cazerne said. “Again, I do think you’re pretty lucky this isn’t one. It would probably look bad if the resident hero was strung up in front of a tribunal.”

“What is this, then?”

“Private,” Cazerne said firmly. “This is a locked-doors event-- I asked to be admitted and was told I wouldn’t be allowed.”

“That doesn’t make me feel any better. I’d like to be able to speak with-- I don’t know.” He frowned. 

“I feel as though if you were in more trouble, you wouldn’t be freely sitting here discussing it with us. You’d have been on a military transport back from Phezzan and kept under lock and key the whole way.”

“True.” Reinhard bit his finger. “I hate not having any indication of what’s going on.”

“Have you spoken to Fredrica about this?” Annerose asked.

“No,” Reinhard said. “Why?”

“Her father--”

“I’m not going to ask Fredrica for that kind of favor,” Reinhard said. “I don’t know why you’d even suggest it.”

“Because Fredrica is your friend, and her father owes you.”

“No, he doesn’t,” Reinhard said. “I’m not going to bother her with this.”

Annerose frowned. 

“I wish I had more information for you,” Cazerne said. “If this goes badly, I’ll see what I can do for you.”

“I can handle it,” Reinhard said.

 


 

The day the inquest began was gloomy, and cold for the season. Reinhard left the house before anyone but Annerose was awake, and she straightened his already-straight beret on his head and wished him luck. He made his way into the capitol, and when he presented himself at the information desk in the front lobby, he was checked in and escorted to a hearing room, whereupon his phone was confiscated before he was allowed in.

He was early, but Reinhard had never had too much of a problem with waiting in stiff silence, keeping his expression carefully neutral even under the scrutiny of the guard at the door. After some time, people began filtering in and taking up seats at the table in the front or in the gallery behind Reinhard. He wasn’t sure how many people he had expected, but he assumed that either no one would be spectating this small affair, or a much larger audience than this. The people who filled out the rows behind him were mostly dressed in civilian clothing, though there were a few fleet uniforms scattered among them. Again, not as many as Reinhard would have expected. Even though Cazerne had said it was a political matter, Reinhard hadn’t really believed him.

There was a man who arrived a few minutes after Reinhard, who sat down in the gallery section and began staring at him, in a way that Reinhard couldn’t interpret. It wasn’t exactly hostile, but it was piercing. He was young, maybe in his early thirties, and he had a sallow, drawn face. A captain’s pin glinted on his lapel. Reinhard met his gaze, undeterred.

More people trickled into the room. He recognized the man who took the center seat at the panel at the front of the room-- Mr. Negroponty, Reinhard believed was his name. He held some high position within the department of defense, and so he ended up in the papers fairly often, usually standing near Job Trunicht and glowering. He was a fat man, with slicked back black hair, and he looked at Reinhard with a distaste that reminded Reinhard of the way Muller had looked at him, across the room of that first party he had attended on Phezzan. Involuntarily, the thought made him smile, and Negroponty’s eyebrows furrowed. 

A man at the front called the assembly to order, and a hush fell over the room. 

“This meeting for the Committee for Public Defense is now in session,” the man said. He read out a long string of rules of decorum, beginning with reminding everyone that the contents of the meeting were not to be discussed with anyone without prior authorization, and then going over the procedure of the hearing. Reinhard listened carefully, as this time seemed to be his only opportunity to figure out what was about to happen to him. He was fairly sure he wasn’t about to be outright accused of being a traitor-- Cazerne was right that he would be in jail already if he was-- but Reinhard knew he was in dangerous territory.

“We shall begin by swearing in Lieutenant Commander Reinhard von Müsel, who will be giving testimony today. Lieutenant Commander, please stand.”

Reinhard stood, placed his right hand over his heart and his left in the air.

“Reinhard von Müsel, do you swear to answer all questions truthfully and to the full extent of your knowledge?”

“I do so swear.”

“You may be seated.”

Reinhard sat.

Negroponty was the one to begin the questioning. “Mr. von Müsel” --and the lack of his rank already grated-- “you have been stationed on Phezzan since your graduation from the command academy last December, is that correct?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Your superior officer, Commodore Blackwell, has sent my office quite the letter in support of your personal character. Were you aware of that?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did you ask him to write it?”

“I believe he thinks I am being summoned back to Heinessen unfairly,” Reinhard said. “I did not ask for him to testify on my behalf.”

“Are you aware of the contents of this letter?”

“No, sir.”

“Commodore Blackwell says, and I quote, ‘I have seen absolutely nothing to suggest Lieutenant Commander von Müsel’s disloyalty or incompetence. He has followed every command given to him to the letter, and in circumstances where his personal judgement was required, he has behaved with the intelligence and dignity one should expect from every officer of the Alliance fleet.’ What do you think of that, Mr. von Müsel?”

“I should write him a thank you note,” Reinhard said, unable to keep some of the sarcastic twist out of his voice. “It’s very complimentary.”

“I wonder, why is it that Commodore Blackwell is so eager to reassure this board of your loyalty?”

“Because a reasonable person would expect that I am about to be questioned about it, given that I am here in some sort of trial,” Reinhard said. “He also reassures you against my incompetence and malice, as you just read.”

“You’re not in a trial, Mr. von Müsel.” Negroponty looked down for a moment at some of the papers in front of himself, that he had pulled out of a dark briefcase. “In some people’s opinions, this should have been a court martial, but it was not up to them.”

One of the other people sitting at the head of the table, a prim looking woman in a neat blue suit, pinched her lips and said, “Mr. Negroponty, let’s keep the discussion on the matter at hand.”

Negroponty frowned. “Of course, the councilwoman is right, as always. The fact of the matter is, Mr. von Müsel, you were responsible for delaying the passage of a refugee with critical information about the security of Heinessen, and the delay you caused resulted in that refugee’s death. It is the duty of this council to determine why that happened. Your superior officers have agreed that you were not at fault-- perhaps that is true, perhaps it is not. You are, however, the person responsible.”

The difference between ‘responsible’ and ‘at fault’ sounded much like the difference between ‘inquest’ and ‘trial’ to Reinhard. “I did not kill Mr. Castrop,” Reinhard said. “Nor do I believe that there was anything I could have done to prevent his death.”

Negroponty seemed about to reject Reinhard’s statement out of hand, but the woman spoke up again. “Perhaps we should walk through the events leading up to his death, so this council can have a clear picture of what transpired. The official record provided to us by Commodore Blackwell is scant on detail outside of names and timestamps.”

“Councilwoman Carell, may I remind you--”

“Of course, Mr. Negroponty, you are chair of this committee.” Her smile was thin. “I won’t interrupt your line of questioning.”

Negroponty glowered, but when he spoke, he had gotten back to the point. “Mr. von Müsel, let’s begin at the beginning, then. What was it that originally made you aware of Mr. Castrop’s intention to defect?”

“I read about his situation in the newspaper,” Reinhard said. “I followed all the major Imperial papers on Phezzan-- you can learn a lot that way.”

“When was this?”

“Several months before he actually did, when it was just beginning to be reported how Castrop had refused to pay various taxes.”

“And that made you sure he would defect?”

“I didn’t get the impression that he would be interested in putting up a heroic principled stand when the Kaiser brought his fleets against him,” Reinhard said.

“At the time, were you aware of the Artemis Necklace that Mr. Castrop was using to protect his planet?”

“No, sir,” Reinhard said.

“It would be very foolish of a minor noble to make a stand like that without having some sort of defense, wouldn’t it?”

“I believed that Mr. Castrop was a very stupid man.” There were a few stifled laughs from the audience behind Reinhard. “And I have seen nothing that would change that belief.”

“When did you become aware of the Artemis Necklace?” 

“When Commodore Blackwell described it to me,” Reinhard said. “After Castrop had already departed Phezzan.”

“It’s curious,” Negroponty said. “Your excuse for wanting to search Castrop’s ship in the first place was that he might be carrying information. What sort of information did you think he had?”

Reinhard had, at least, been prepared for this question. He couldn’t admit that he had been acting on Muller’s advice, or that he had lied to Blackwell, but he could fudge the truth here, look just a little guilty. That false guilt would cover up the real lie. He let his normally piercing gaze slide away from the front table down towards his hands. “I assumed he might have military information, since he thought he could put up some resistance against the Imperial fleet. Or financial information, about Phezzan. I looked into his dealings… They didn’t quite add up. It was enough to make me think he would have something.”

“You thought he might have military information, but you just said yourself that you considered him to be making a grave error in judgement?” Let Negroponty think he had caught him in a lie.

“I don’t trust nobles, sir,” Reinhard blurted out. He ran his hand over his braided hair, looking down. He pretended to get himself under control. “I assumed he was wrong about how he could use whatever information he had, but he must have believed he had enough of an advantage to make standing up against the Kaiser even possible. Maybe he thought he had allies-- it could have revealed what the allegiances for the throne were…”

“What do you mean, you don’t trust nobles, Lieutenant Commander?” the councilwoman asked. “Wasn’t your family nobility in the Empire?”

“Reichsritter,” Reinhard said. “The ‘von’ means less than nothing.”

“No class solidarity?” Negroponty asked. Reinhard glared at him.

“I grew up poor, Mr. Negroponty,” Reinhard said, and it was quite easy to let real venom into his tone. “Poor enough that my father tried to-- no, he did-- he sold my sister . To the Kaiser. To use as he pleased.” There was a moment of tense silence in the room. “That is why I do not trust nobles.”

“Please do keep your composure, Mr. von Müsel,” Negroponty said after a moment. “Your lack of trust for Imperial nobility doesn’t seem to factor in to why you wished to search his ship, does it?”

Reinhard narrowed his eyes. “What are you asking?”

“I trust nobles about as far as I can throw them, and I’m sure that everyone in this room would say the same, of course. But if you were looking for Mr. Castrop to have military information hidden on his ship, why couldn’t it have waited until he made it all the way to Heinessen?”

“Don’t you think he would have sold what he knew of the Artemis Necklace’s weaknesses at the highest possible cost?” Reinhard asked, letting his voice raise. “Wouldn’t it have been better to get that information from him before he had a chance to use it as blackmail?”

“But you failed to acquire that information,” Negroponty said, whacking his hand on the table. “And now we have no idea what critical flaw the Artemis Necklace that protects this very planet has.”

“I was in the process of conducting a thorough search,” Reinhard said. “I was ordered to leave before I could finish.”

“Yet you had plenty of time to find the two other nobles you removed from his ship,” Negroponty said. “The von Mariendorf family, wasn’t it?”

Reinhard stayed silent.

“Do you have nothing to say for yourself?”

“Are you asking me a question, Mr. Negroponty?” Reinhard leaned forward. “I was searching his ship; they were what I was able to find before I was ordered to stop.”

“And you let them wander back to the Imperial embassy without any further thought.”

“Is it the policy of the Alliance government to hold civilians hostage on Phezzan?”

“I am asking the questions here, Mr. von Müsel.” He shuffled his papers around. “Additionally, I would note that when you questioned the passengers of Mr. Castrop’s ship, you asked all of them if they would like to remain on Phezzan-- presumably to return to the Empire-- or find different passage to our side of the galaxy.”

“Yes.”

“Explain this to me.”

“Sir, the fact that five women did request alternate passage to Heinessen should answer your question.” 

“Lucky them,” Negroponty said dryly. “They made it here alive.”

Although Reinhard had begun his justifications with feigned emotion, he was now legitimately angry, and he clenched his fists on the table in front of him before wiping his sweaty hands on his pants. “If you wish to accuse me of being a humanitarian-- please do,” Reinhard said. “Mr. Castrop was a cruel and stupid man. I had the suspicion that not everyone travelling with him was there of their own will, and I was correct.” He sucked in a breath, glaring at Negroponty. “This country took in my family in the darkest hour of our lives. I will not be someone who turns away from providing that help to others.” He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. “If Fleet Command did not want me to provide assistance to refugees on Phezzan, I should not have been posted to Phezzan.”

“Rest assured, Mr. von Müsel, you no longer will be,” Negroponty said. Reinhard glared at him, but said nothing.

“Chairman,” the councilwoman who had spoken up before said, “perhaps we should put this aside for the moment and walk through the day’s events.”

Negroponty’s lip curled in a sneer, and he took a long moment, glancing back and forth at Reinhard and the councilwoman, before he shuffled some of the papers in front of himself and said, “Very well. Let us begin with Mr. Castrop’s request to dock at the Phezzani port…”

Reinhard put his smooth professional face back on as they walked through the timeline of the day’s events. It took well over an hour for him to describe everything that had occurred, interrupted as he was by the occasional prompt, jibe, or question from Negroponty. At least the conversation remained on facts, and Reinhard was not asked for reasons behind things, though he sensed that he would be. At the end of his description of the day, finishing with the release of the Mariendorfs into the freedom of Phezzan, the councilwoman asked if they could take a five minute recess.

Reinhard was only too happy to do so, as he had grown stiff and uncomfortable in his chair. He stretched and asked if he was allowed out to use the restroom, and he was pointed in the right direction.

Reinhard was washing his hands when the door opened, and he glanced over to see who had come in. It was the captain who had been sitting in the gallery watching Reinhard. He didn’t move towards the stalls or urinals, but instead joined Reinhard near the sink. It reminded Reinhard very much of the rather unsubtle way that Muller had occasionally approached him on Phezzan. Reinhard immediately ascertained that Muller was the more competent agent than this man was.

“Did you need something, Captain?” Reinhard asked.

“I figured I should introduce myself.”

Reinhard hit the button on the hand dryer with his elbow, filling the bathroom with its over-loud whine. “You have me at a disadvantage, Captain.”

The man didn’t offer his hand, but he said, “My name is Andrew Fork. I work for Admiral Greenhill.”

“Oh-- Lieutenant Commander Greenhill mentioned you in one of her letters.” Reinhard offered a genuine smile. If Fredrica liked him, Reinhard could give him the benefit of the doubt. “Pleasure to meet you, though I wish it could have been under better circumstances.”

“I agree,” Fork said.

“Did she send you here to keep track of me?”

“No,” Fork said. “I’m actually here on an errand from the Secretary of Defense.”

The hand dryer finished its cycle, and Reinhard hit the button again so that they could continue talking. “And what does Mr. Trunicht want with me?”

“He is prepared to help you if you cooperate with him in there.” With the alternative being that his career would be destroyed if he didn’t.

“Cooperate in what way?”

“Make the committee understand that Phezzan was responsible for Castrop’s death,” Fork said. “He needs an excuse to pressure Phezzan-- that’s why he organized this whole inquest.” He jerked his head, indicating the committee outside. “None of them will admit it, but that’s the seed he’s planted for them to investigate.” 

“He’s the one who saved me from a court martial? So I could be a tool for him?”

“He has an interest in your career beyond just this. But yes, he made this happen.”

“The Secretary of Defense is playing with fire, trying to go against Phezzan.”

“Are you willing to do it?”

“I don’t like being bribed or threatened, Captain.”

Fork frowned. “This is neither. It’s the opportunity for you to change the future of the galaxy.”

Reinhard wanted to retort that that was a bribe, but the fact that Fredrica trusted this man stopped him from being outright rude. “I’ll consider it,” Reinhard said. He couldn’t deny that the prospect interested him, for his own reasons. After investigating the economic stranglehold that Phezzan held over the Alliance, it seemed right that someone should make moves towards breaking it. “I can only answer the questions that they ask.”

“They’re about to ask about the circumstances surrounding Castrop’s death,” Fork said. “This is the time.”

Reinhard nodded. The hand dryer wheezed its last. “Please give Lieutenant Commander Greenhill my regards,” Reinhard said, and brushed out of the bathroom past Fork.

The five minute recess stretched out to more than fifteen minutes, as it took quite a while for Negroponty and the rest of the committee to return to their seats. As Reinhard waited for everyone else to shuffle into the room, he had plenty of time to think about Fork’s offer.

He didn’t like Job Trunicht much. The man had a slimy way about him, and using Reinhard as a pawn to manipulate the committee was a low move. 

Unfortunately, the idea of spurning Trunicht and being sent to some do-nothing post for years was unbearable. Reinhard’s record probably showed that he would be too well suited to be posted to the front-- Trunicht would probably personally make sure that Reinhard never saw the interior of a ship again. Even if he could prove his merits and work his way back up, the waste of time-- Reinhard bit his finger, annoyed.

It was cooperate with Trunicht and be rewarded, on one hand-- getting closer to the halls of power was exactly what he wanted-- or take his pride and end up destroying his career. And perhaps Annerose’s and Fredrica’s, too. Reinhard wouldn’t put it past Trunicht to hold that over him.

Especially considering that Trunicht was aware that Ingrid was living in Annerose’s house. It would not be difficult for that to become a scandal that ended with a dishonorable discharge for Annerose, and Ingrid being whisked away to some Earth Church safehouse, never to be seen again. It turned his stomach, on Annerose’s behalf. Although he was perhaps being paranoid-- Fork hadn’t mentioned any of that as a threat-- Reinhard couldn’t help but consider every avenue of power that Trunicht held over him.

He hated being a pawn. But he couldn’t bear the thought of more wasted time, not now that he knew Kircheis was holding to his promise on the other side of the galaxy, and he didn’t like the possibility that Trunicht could destroy Annerose’s career as well as his own. It wasn’t much of a choice.

The rest of the committee made their way in and sat down. Negroponty looked annoyed, more even than he had been before. Perhaps the councilwoman had cornered him while they were both out of the room.

As Negroponty called the room to order, Reinhard glanced to the side, where he could feel Fork’s eyes on him.

“Now that we’ve discussed your experience searching Mr. Castrop’s ship, I believe this committee would be negligent if we did not ask what you know about Mr, Castrop’s death.” Negroponty said.

“I don’t know anything about it, sir,” Reinhard said.

“Yes,” Negroponty said. “You’ve said as much. But Councilwoman Carell has a list of questions regardless. Councilwoman, you have the floor.”

“Thank you, Mr. Negroponty,” the woman said. She looked at Reinhard with a studying gaze now. For all that she had been the one holding Negroponty back during the beginning of this inquest, Reinhard had no idea what her goal was. He was sure that he was about to find out. “As I’m sure you’re aware, Mr. Castrop’s ship was destroyed in deep space, within the Phezzani navigational area, just before they were intending to switch to Alliance commercial navigation routes. It was apparently quite the violent end to the ship, as debris has been found moving at a significant fraction of lightspeed. Analysis of the wreckage has been inconclusive as to the specific cause, but I’d like to walk through some of the possibilities. First of all, Lieutenant Commander, let’s eliminate the unlikely: while you were on board Mr. Castrop’s ship, did it appear to be in ill-repair enough that this could have been completely accidental?”

“No, Councilwoman,” Reinhard said. “I’m not an expert, but there were no obvious signs of damage, and the docking certification that was given to the Phezzani Port Authority indicated that maintenance was performed regularly. Everything I saw indicated that Mr. Castrop liked his ship, and spent quite a lot of money on its upkeep.”

The councilwoman nodded. “Thank you. Now, Commodore Blackwell provided a list of people who boarded or disembarked from Mr. Castrop’s ship while he was in the Phezzan port. Is that list comprehensive?”

“Yes,” Reinhard said. “We had the ship under surveillance the entire time.”

“In the port record, it notes that Mr. Castrop took on some supplies while in port; were those loaded by the ship’s crew?”

“Cargo is loaded through a different process than passengers are. Usually, it’s done outside the station itself using automated cargo drones. It’s highly unlikely that a person could have snuck onto the ship through that route, as it would have triggered an alarm.”

“Do you know what was in the cargo that he purchased?”

“No,” Reinhard said. “We don’t have the ability to monitor every transaction on Phezzan, unfortunately.”

“That is unfortunate.” She looked down at her notes. “Would it have been possible for the cargo to have been replaced with something destructive-- a timed explosive?”

“It’s possible, I suppose, though if I were a member of Mr. Castrop’s staff, I would check that we had received the items we paid for, before departing port. I also think that Phezzani vendors would be risking a lot of their reputation if they took an Imperial bribe on rather short notice to destroy a ship so blatantly.”

“I’m not asking for your speculation, Lieutenant Commander,” she said. “But you are saying it is possible but unlikely that the cargo was tampered with?”

“I believe it would have been difficult for any Imperial agent on Phezzan to tamper with the cargo without it being detected,” Reinhard said.

“Our embassy has some ability to identify Imperial ships departing from Phezzan, correct?”

“Yes,” Reinhard said. “I don’t believe it’s prudent to discuss the details.”

“I understand. Did any ships that appeared to be Imperial follow Mr. Castrop after he departed?”

“No,” Reinhard said. “I can say definitively that he was not followed by an Imperial ship, unless they were using an undiscovered nav route that bypasses Phezzan entirely-- and that would not be worth revealing and using over a single escaped noble.”

“Could an Imperial ship already inside Alliance territory have caught him?”

Reinhard thought about this for a moment. “We’ve long been aware that single Imperial ships perform reconnaissance missions, crossing through the Iserlohn corridor. If they had Mr. Castrop’s navigational data ahead of time, they may have been able to intercept him. It seems unlikely, though, as it would be far simpler for them to send a disguised ship through Phezzan. They have been prepared to do so in the past.” Reinhard paused, seeing his chance. “May I make an observation?”

The councilwoman raised her eyebrows. “If you must.”

“Mr. Castrop did not appear to be a high priority of the Imperial government. When I spoke to Count Mariendorf, I was informed that only one ship had been sent after him, not an entire fleet, and that ship had avoided firing on him because of Mr. Mariendorf’s status as a captive. I am given to understand that if Mr. Castrop was considered dangerous, the Imperial fleet would not have hesitated to destroy his ship long before he made it to Phezzan. Count Mariendorf may be a respected member of the court-- I don’t know-- but even nobles will be trampled in service to the crown, when they must be.”

“You would know,” Negroponty said.

Reinhard scowled.

“Lieutenant Commander,” the councilwoman said, “it seems as though you’re saying that every traditional mode of destroying a ship would be too inconvenient for the Imperial government to stoop to.”

“I don’t know how Mr. Castrop’s ship was destroyed,” he said. “I can answer questions about things that I’ve seen, but I did not see anything that would have led me to believe Castrop wouldn’t make it to Heinessen alive. If I had, I would have done my due diligence to prevent it.”

“Could there have been a saboteur already on board Mr. Castrop’s ship?”

“One who knew to get off on Phezzan? You should summon the women who left his ship as potential witnesses.”

“Or one who escaped the ship in an escape pod, to be picked up later,” the councilwoman said.

“The only way to answer that is by analysis of the debris,” Reinhard said. “Councilwoman, I don’t know what you hope to gain by asking me. If the Imperial government has some new, secret method for destroying ships-- I don’t know how I could discern it from where I stand.”

She ignored his protest. “Lieutenant Commander, we would like to be thorough here. You should consider yourself lucky that this is not a court martial, because you claiming to know nothing would not stand up under their scrutiny. It would be evidence of your incompetence, which Commodore Blackwell helpfully told us not to consider. So, I would like to ask, in your opinion, what are the ways that Mr. Castrop’s ship was destroyed?”

“Are you asking me to speculate, Councilwoman?”

“If speculating is the only thing you’re capable of.”

Reinhard frowned. “Perhaps one of the maintenance or cargo drones planted an explosive within his engine opening. Maybe the navigation package he was sent was tampered with, and it introduced a malicious program that caused his engine to collapse as he came out of lightspeed. There could have been a saboteur on board, even one who sacrificed himself. Maybe a supposed merchant ship already in Alliance space was armed and destroyed Mr. Castrop’s ship on a bribe.” He splayed his hands. “There’s no way to know, and without a full forensic analysis of the debris-- maybe if the central computer’s recording system is found…” He trailed off with a huff, and tried to sound genuine. It was all a show, now more for Job Trunicht than anyone else. “I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful. I’m sorry that Mr. Castrop is dead, along with all his passengers. I don’t know what else I can say to you.”

There was a moment of silence. The councilwoman opened her mouth to say something, but Negroponty instead cut her off. “I don’t believe this is useful speculation, Councilwoman. If Mr. von Müsel has nothing to say, he has nothing to say. Ask him questions he could know the answer to, instead of trying to lead him and this committee around like a dog on a leash.”

The councilwoman’s face darkened. “I have no more questions.”

“Good,” Negroponty said. “Nor do I.”

Reinhard couldn’t resist glancing across the room at Fork, but his expression was completely empty. Reinhard looked away.